Tenants at the Woodner Apartments in northwest D.C. protest evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo via Facebook)
Tenants at the Woodner Apartments in northwest D.C. protest evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo via Facebook)

September will mark the fourth month of a rent strike taking place among more than 150 tenants at the Woodner Apartments, considered one of the largest apartment complexes in the District.

Instead of paying their rent, many participants, like Modesto King, have decided to save what little money they have, or purchase food, toiletries and other items deemed a greater priority.

And while their campaign to get rent canceled during the coronavirus pandemic has gained some traction, subsequent negotiations haven’t brought about the change intended by those organizing the strike.

Though management proposed a payment plan where tenants could pay a portion of their overdue rent balance later without penalty, King said such an overture wouldn’t suffice at a time when he sees food lines getting longer and families becoming increasingly anxious.

“Some people don’t know how they’re going to pay the rent. Others are moving out of the building which makes me feel strange because I don’t know how it will be next year,” said King, a Woodner tenant of more than 15 years.

King said, since last month when he lost his job as an auto technician, he’s depleted his savings account in order to stay afloat while attempts to secure unemployment benefits have proven fruitless. Even so, the high-profile tenant board member continued to organize with other tenant representatives across the District, even appearing on a #CancelRent panel discussion at We Act Radio in Southeast, where he used his on-the-ground experiences to make a case for this type of relief.

“People are saying things are going to get worse – even those with jobs and I don’t know how they’re taking it,” King told The Informer.

“People without jobs will be piling up [in apartments with one another] and we’re just talking about those like us who are here legally. The illegal population isn’t counted in the statistics and seem to have been left behind,” he said.

Increased Anxiety Crosses City, State Lines

The Woodner-based rent strike campaign, and several others across the District, continue during an unprecedented health pandemic, impacting life for tenants, landlords and lawmakers alike.

Last month, the expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions incited fears about what the future held for tenants throughout the Greater Washington Area and the nation, many of whom have been unable to pay their rent with business closures that have resulted due to COVID-19.

In the District, an eviction moratorium has been extended. But upon receiving numerous reports by citizens of threats from local landlords, Ward 8 Council member Trayon White has urged his constituents to bring similar incidents of coercion to his office for investigation.

In Virginia, with more than 6,000 eviction hearings originally scheduled throughout late July and the first week in August, the state’s Supreme Court approved the delay of eviction proceedings until September 7.

Marylanders face a more tenuous future with the expiration last month of a state-level rent moratorium. Some tenants there say they’re increasingly feeling the heat of eviction notices and landlords’ legal threats. One group of MD lawmakers have since discussed the matter in virtual sessions, releasing a report earlier this month recommending the extension of the moratorium, expanding a legal services pilot program that mediates landlord-tenant disputes and providing for the infusion of millions into rental assistance programs.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has asked state courts to extend the moratorium which, if approved, would delay hearings until January 31. Under Maryland’s state of emergency, which Governor Larry Hogan (R) extended earlier this month, tenants are allowed to use COVID-related loss of income as a defense against eviction.

But for some, it’s seemingly too little too late.

For Javada Murphy, when the water heater malfunctioned in the single-family home which Murphy rented, not even her voucher and assurances that she and her children could stay for the rest of the year were enough to prevent her landlord from selling the Clinton, Maryland property and evicting the mother of three less than a week after the statewide eviction ban expired.

Though Murphy, a social entrepreneur and outreach career agent, said she could’ve challenged her landlord’s decision with Hogan’s tenant income loss executive order, she decided that any tension would have only exacerbated the situation, already marred by a reduction in her work hours and the repossession of her car.

On July 31, her last day in her home, Murphy placed some of her intimate belongings in storage, relinquished her security deposit for the disposal of her furniture and placed her children with out-of-town relatives while she attempted to find a new place before the start of the new school year.

Nearly two weeks later, her efforts remain unsuccessful. As the rejections accumulate, she continues to collect income from various jobs but has entered a shelter in a last-ditch effort to get some assistance.

“Due to my credit score, it’s not easy finding a place. I knew I would be able to get help in a shelter,” Murphy told The Informer just hours before her meeting with a case worker.

“Now I’m working eight hours a week. I started driving Uber full-time but in between that and having a shelter curfew, there’s a lot of interference. My caseworker is helping me with rapid rehousing. It’s a positive move.”

In Consideration of the Bigger Picture

As county governments struggle to meet the overwhelming need for rental assistance, more than 356,000 Maryland residents are expected to be evicted by September, per the Aspen Institute, due to income lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

Long before COVID-19 however, the incremental increase in Maryland’s cost of living has forced residents – particularly those living in parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties bordering the District — to seek accommodation elsewhere in the state. Oftentimes, these new locations have only been found in areas beyond the Beltway.

One woman who requested anonymity recounted making such a move from Takoma Park to her cousin’s apartment near Baltimore late last year in hopes of eventually settling somewhere else in the state. However, COVID-19 delayed those plans.

In mid-March, shortly after Hogan announced his stay-at-home orders, the woman’s employer reduced her hours at a facility serving adults with disabilities. She has since had to rely on the income from another part-time gig with an inconsistent schedule. Though the woman and her cousin, both of whom hail from West Africa, have been able to pay rent every month, it hasn’t been without anxiety.

“We’re struggling. That’s the bottom line. With family back home, I have to hustle and send them money too,” the woman told The Informer.

“It’s really tight and [the pandemic] has affected us all. I had a call with my supervisor who had previously cut my hours, so with that I’m hopeful. As far as jobs, I put in applications in several places and have an upcoming virtual interview.”

Sam P.K. Collins photo

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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